Swivel Drivel

(Or Why Cheap Swivels Don't)
by Louis Bignami

"When in doubt, don't!" seems a good rule with swivels. Americans use far too many swivels as a sort of "super snap" where European anglers would use rings or snaps. Snap swivels to attach plugs don't make sense because an open loop knot insures better action. Habitual snap swivels for quick lure changes just about guarantee you'll have frayed line. New knots with each change work better!

Swivels can cause other problems. Bright silver or brass swivels attract the unwelcome attention of toothy critters in both fresh and salt water. So I opt for black swivels. I also try to help swivels by pinching spinner blades to insure opposite rotations and by rigging worms and such so they track unless I'm deliberately seeking a spinning effect. Then too, no swivel will eliminate line twist entirely, so it's wise to know you can unkink lines by streaming them sans lure over the side of a moving boat or into a stream.

Sizing Swivels 

Common sense dictates that even the smallest swivels are stronger than your line, so use the smallest possible swivel. Many bearing surfaces are better than a couple, so opt for ball-bearings where possible. Cheap swivels with "slider or pinhead bearings" don't work well. Chain types that compound pinhead bearings are a bit better. Non-corroding materials suit saltwater. But you need not take anyone's word on all this. I didn't. I compared a decent selection of different swivels in a series of tests I picked up from Gary Soucie's expectional book, Hook, Line & Sinker.

Since a confusion of sizes and brands of slider bearing "barrel" swivels precludes individual tests, I compared common sliders with Sampo and Berkeley ball bearing swivels. I usually use Sampos (which are dozens of times more efficient than most sliders and seemingly better than other ball bearing types) where a split ring or snap won't do the job, as is the case when attaching sinkers or using bobber stops. Berkeleys are in the same class. Both use ball bearings.

Some slider bearing swivels use twist heads made from single wire. Others use split wire heads. Split heads tested better. Box-swivels use an open box body instead of a hollow tube. These were better than split head and they help you clean bearing surfaces, but spin worse than twisted head swivels. Pin head "slider bearings" common on three-way swivels were least efficient. Use cross-line bead chain types, or the Abe n' Al trolling swivel popular on the West Coast, instead.

Tests showed that smaller swivels in a given class worked best as long as the slider bearings weren't stressed more than half of suggested line test rates. I found slider bearing quality varied wildly from lot to lot. So test each batch if you use this type.

Clearly ball-bearing swivels work best. Sampos ranked tops in our twist, load and head-to-head tests. Berkely ball bearing swivels came in a close second. Note: attach swivels with the big end of the swivel away from the reel for best performance.

Test Showed The Best

Don't take my word. Particular batches or sizes may vary; quality differerences between brands change over time. Three tests tell all you need to know.

  1. Twist tests show how swivels let lines untwist when you troll or cast.
  2. Load tests show how swivels work with fish on.
  3. Head-to-head tests compare different swivel types and sizes head-to-head.

All you need is a nail, three double opening snaps, a piece of stiff wire, a spring scale like a lightweight fishing scale and a slow afternoon at home.

Twist Test 

This test shows you which swivels swivel. Tie one end of a foot-long piece of line to the test swivel, and tie your scale on the other. Hang the unused eye of the test swivel on a nail. Use the scale to tighten the line to 25 to 33 percent of the line test and twist on ten turns with the wire "handle". Gradually release the tension and see when the swivel turns. Repeat with twenty or even thirty turns. You often need to nearly slack the line to get brass swivels to turn. Small Sampos are an exception that turn quickly.

Load Test

Tie a loop on each end of six inches of 15 to 20 pound test line. Attach the test swivel to one loop and your scale to the other. Hang the test swivel on a nail. Stick a foot long piece of stiff wire through the line end eye of the test swivel -- coat hanger wire works. Pull the scale to a pound or two and twist the wire. Keep adding tension and twisting as resistance to turning builds. This gives you a "relative" idea of how well swivels turn under load. Actual performance in the water is two to four times better because of water's lubrication effect. On that line, I try to keep swivels dry to limit corrosion when they're not in use.

Head-To-Head

Stick a nail in the wall. String on a double-opening snap, test swivel one, another snap, test swivel two, another snap and an unswiveled sinker like a ball or bank type. Try this with identical swivels and discover that the eye of the lower swivel nearest the sinker does the work. Given this, you can directly compare any two swivels by alternating their order and testing twice. You can start with ounce sinkers and work up to big two or three pound cannonballs if you want to compare swivels under load. Reverse the postition of each swivel, and with ball bearing swivels with "big" and "little" ends, switch ends.

Test once, and you'll see what works best. Then realize that no swivel is 100% perfect. So you need to check your line for twists from time to time and use counter-rotating lures where possible. As always, technology should supplement, not replace, traditional techniques and skills! Do this and you'll suffer fewer line twists forever!